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Q&A: Sycamore firefighter volunteers in California

November 23, 2018

The air is hazy in Northern California, and people venturing outside wear face masks to prevent breathing in the smoke from the devastating wildfire nicknamed Camp Fire.

For Dean Richardson of Sycamore, the haze is unlike anything he’s ever seen, including all the fires during his 30 years as a firefighter with the DeKalb Fire Department.

Richardson, a volunteer with the American Red Cross, was deployed to California on Nov. 11 for two weeks to help with fire relief efforts. Part of his duties as a volunteer include packing up fire kits and comfort kits for people displaced from their homes.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s incident report, Camp Fire has burned about 151,000 acres in Butte County, California. There have been more than 75 confirmed fatalities and nearly 1,000 people still are unaccounted for.

Richardson spoke to reporter Katrina Milton over the phone from Northern California, where he is helping with relief efforts.

Milton: What do you do with the Red Cross?

Richardson: I am a Red Cross volunteer. I’ve been a volunteer for 10 years and have deployed around 15 times in different areas.

I help with the delivery of emergency supplies, helping the Red Cross bring disaster relief supplies from warehouses to shelters or wherever there is a need. There is a minimum of a two-week commitment, and you can extend and stay longer if you want.

Milton: Where are some places that you have been deployed to while volunteering?

Richardson: I’ve been deployed all over the country: Mississippi, Colorado, North Dakota. We help after flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires. I helped after the Joplin tornado, Hurricane Florence in North Carolina and Hurricane Michael in Georgia.

Milton: What do you do back home in DeKalb?

Richardson: I am retired. I was a firefighter for 30 years in DeKalb. Whenever a fire had displaced someone, the Red Cross was there helping with food, shelter and basic necessities. Those people are going through the worst time of their lives. It gives them some comfort to know that they have a place to lay their head at night, some food and safety. Right now, the Red Cross has four shelters open, with most filled or near capacity.

Milton: How does the Camp Fire wildfire compare with fires in DeKalb?

Richardson: As a firefighter in DeKalb, I saw the same types of instances, where people were in need. It’s just nice to assist, whether it’s a hug or help. Being out here, seeing the devastation, it just really makes you put things into perspective. I can’t imagine what they’re going through because I haven’t gone through that myself. I have a daughter in DeKalb and three grandchildren. It makes you think how lucky you are to have your family safe and all their needs met.

Milton: What have you experienced there so far?

Richardson: I arrived Saturday, Nov. 11, to Sacramento, which was the headquarters at the time. I checked in and attended a couple of safety briefings. The next day, I was assigned to a newly opened shelter in Quincy. Even though it was only 90 miles away, it took us about three hours to get there because all of the roads were closed. Since then, I’ve moved a couple of times. Now I’m housed in Yuba City. After I have breakfast, we head to the headquarters in Oroville. We have a meeting, and I’m told the plan and mission for the day.

Milton: What have you been working on while there?

Richardson: I have been helping pack fire kits, which include masks, eye drops, gloves, trash bags, tarps and throat lozenges and comfort kits with hygienic items such as washcloths and razors. The kits and rakes and shovels are loaded onto a truck to be delivered. At this time, most people are in shelters. There’s still about 1,000 people unaccounted for.

Milton: Do you see smoke at your location?

Richardson: We see smoke every day, but the levels and density changes with the wind. I could even see smoke, the haze, when I first arrived in Sacramento. You can definitely smell it, the air smells like you’re next to a campfire. You get used to the smell after a while. The haze is in the air all the time. The farther north you go, the worse it is. Volunteers are given N95 masks. You need it when you’re going outside. It’s hard to imagine the mass, the sheer size, of the fire. It’s more than 150,000 acres.

Milton: Why did you decide to volunteer?

Richardson: I was watching the news on TV. Knowing you can make a little bit of difference, it’s hard not to help and want to deploy. If you can’t volunteer time, consider donating whatever you can to the Red Cross. It’s just one way to help. … I’d also like to thank the American Red Cross volunteers in DeKalb County and northwest Illinois who are responding to fires daily so I can go out and respond nationally.

Milton: What has been something you’ve witnessed that’s been unexpected?

Richardson: The support from the community has been amazing to watch. Everyone is trying to help each other. That’s true for all of the disasters I’ve helped with. The community really pulls together. Even with the devastation, communities are coming together to help celebrate Thanksgiving. Communities are putting on Thanksgiving meals all over.

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